PLEASE UNDERSTAND that the state of Wisconsin is, and has been, in a state of confusion. This is the state that brought us both Joseph McCarthy and Frank P. Zeidler. The red-baiting U.S. Senator Joe McCarthy led the Army/McCarthy hearings, hunting for American communists under every rock. Zeidler was, at the same time, the Socialist mayor of Milwaukee, its largest city.
I can't imagine another state so confused . . . except maybe North Carolina, which had Jesse Helms and John Edwards serving together as its United States senators.
Please know that Madison, where the recent ruckus is occurring, is Chapel Hill on steroids. It is bigger. (When I lived there in the 1980s the University of Wisconsin campus had 50,000 students, the size of NC State and UNC combined.) More liberal. (Definitive proof: In 1984 the real-estate-tax rates were twice as high in Madison as they were in Chapel Hill.) And even more out of touch with the rest of Wisconsin than Chapel Hill is with North Carolina. (Think Carrboro cubed.)
Earlier this month in Madison 14 Senate Democrats walked out of the legislature, hiked across the state line, and holed themselves up in Rockford, Ill., thus keeping the 33-member Senate one member short of achieving a 20-member quorum needed to vote on fiscal matters. (This is what I call democracy in action -- as opposed to something mundane like voting.)
With their walkout, these senators thereby stalled a proposal by Gov. Scott Walker that would take away from the state's public-sector employees most of their collective bargaining rights, which would make large cuts in state spending, the governor would argue, feasible. Since then the streets of Madison have been filled with tens of thousands of raucous demonstrators.
(For the record, almost every state, including North Carolina, is facing the prospect of large budget cuts. And also, for the record, North Carolina's public-sector employees have had no collective bargaining rights since 1959 -- when a Democrat-controlled legislature took them away, under no particular budget crisis. Does anybody think that North Carolina state employees are overworked, or underpaid and under-benefited, as compared to comparable private-sector workers? I used to work for the state, and in the private sector, and I don't.)
Meanwhile, the Badger State constitution gives its Senate the right to "compel the attendance of absent members in such manner and under such penalty as each house may provide." Once notified of the absence, the Senate rules say the Senate sergeant at arms "shall forthwith proceed to find and bring in such absentees." We will see what that means.
"The rules weren't written with the expectation that someone would deliberately not comply and would place themselves outside of the jurisdiction of the state," said UW-Milwaukee political science professor Mordecai Lee, who served in both the Assembly and the Senate.
According to the Wisconsin State Journal, this was not the first time Wisconsin lawmakers have walked off the job to avoid a legislative vote. The State Journal summarized past efforts in Wisconsin to force lawmakers' attendance at votes as detailed in a 1960 report by the Wisconsin Legislative Reference Library.
• In 1903, during a vote on a bill to establish primary elections, lawmakers were forced to remain locked in chambers for 40 hours until absent legislators could be brought back to the Assembly. "One of whom had been found hidden in the hay of his farm barn in a faraway county," said the legislative report, quoting a 1943 State Journal article.
• In 1918, The New York Times reported that Wisconsin state senators remained locked in chamber after some lawmakers fled the Capitol to avoid voting on a "loyalty resolution" that was a veiled rebuke to Wisconsin's own Progressive U.S. Senator Robert La Follette's anti-war stance.
• In 1951, Rep. Ruth Doyle refused to leave the "ladies' powder room," where she fled to avoid voting on a resolution asking Gen. Douglas MacArthur to address the Legislature on appeasing "Communists in our own nation and the world." A State Journal report said the Assembly Sergeant at Arms entered the bathroom, bringing Doyle back to the Assembly chamber, where she promptly voted against the measure.
We should have seen this brouhaha coming; the Miami did. According to the Wisconsin Historical Society, "Wisconsin" is the English spelling of a French version of a Miami Indian name for the river that runs through the center of the state. Recent scholarship has concluded that in Miami it meant, "this stream meanders through something red."
* At the end of every home football game at Canp Randall, win or lose, the UW marching band heads out to the field to perform a mini-half-time show for the fans, most of whom stay, until the final number, sung to the tune of the Budweiser theme song, which ends with "When you've said Wisconsin! -- you've said it all." Wisconsin is major beer-producing state. Budweiser is a product of Anheuser-Busch which is based in St. Louis, Missouri. I told you they were confused.
Gary D. Gaddy was a non-unionized Wisconsin public-sector employee from 1983 to 1987.
A version of this story was published in the Chapel Hill Herald on Friday February 25, 2011.
Copyright 2011 Gary D. Gaddy